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Jane Colden 1724-1766


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Jane Colden, A page from her botanical manuscript describing

 “Yellow  Lilly with the flowers standing upright”

(Lilium philadelphicum), c. 1750s.

In colonial days the Hudson Valley was by and large “the habitation only of wolves and bears and other wild animals.” declared Cadwallader Colden.

Yet it was there he raised his family. A Scottish doctor, Colden was interested in all things scientific, including botany. The homestead was comprised of several thousand acres of heavily wooded land, a feast of botanical bounty, and when his daughter Jane took an interest in the world of plants he was delighted.  “She is more curious and accurate than I could have been …her descriptions are more perfect & I believe few or none exceed them,” he said.

Europe was abuzz with the new trees and shrubs arriving from the New World, and soon Colden’s numerous botanical correspondents were sending their inquiries for information directly to Jane.

She was a quick study. The Linnaean system of plant taxonomy was on the rise, and the Coldens embraced it wholeheartedly. Though Linnaeus’ first botanical work was published in Latin, Dr. Colden translated the basics for Jane, that she could apply the new method to her collecting.

Benjamin Franklin admired her work. John Bartram, the father of American botany, came from Philadelphia to visit. Replying to a letter from Jane he remarks on a particular plant description: “I read it several times with agreeable satisfaction; indeed, I am very careful of it, and it keeps company with the choicest correspondence.”

Through Bartram the English botanist Peter Collinson also began corresponding with JaneIn a letter to Bartram he comments on the “Scientificall Manner” of her work: “I believe she is the first Lady that has Attempted anything of this Nature. She deserves to be celebrated.”

Jane had the wisdom to seek out traditional uses of the plants she recorded, both as medicine and food, as had other early female collectors. During this era, the Five Nations Iriquois were united with the colonists against the French, and we know some of her information came from Canadian Indians as well as local settlers.

Like other botanical heroines, we note she corrected theories held by some of the great minds of the time. In identifying Arbutus as a “new” genus (meaning hitherto unrecorded), the great Linnaeus himself disagreed with Jane, but was proven wrong!  She would go on to be the only female botanist whose work was included in his groundbreaking publication Species Plantarum. Her work was also used as reference in the publication Materia Medica Americana, published in 1787, although in that case uncredited.


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The only leaf impression by Jane Colden surviving today

The full manuscript of her studies is titled Flora Nov-Eboracensis::Plantas in solo natali collegit, descripsit, delineavit, Coldenia C.Coldens filia &c., It contains over 300 plants, descriptions and  line drawings, and one surviving leaf impression. It would come to rest with Joseph Banks in London, and thence to the Natural History Museum there.

She married quite late in life, and died in her forties, not long after giving birth for the first time. A man named Brian Altonen recently created a wonderful tribute to her work in assembling detailed field notes from an outing to the area where Jane collected. Many of her plants flourish there to this day



Harrison, Mary. “Jane Colden: Colonial American Botanist.” Arnoldia 55, no. 2 (1995): 19–26.

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